PRINT September 2007

Kate Bush

Isa Genzken, Untitled (detail), 2007, mixed media. Installation view, Plaza at the Liebfrauen-Überwasserkirche, Münster. Photo: Tim Griffin.

SMALLER AND MORE SUBDUED than its last incarnation, in 1997, Skulptur Projekte Münster 07 is also, perhaps, more thoughtful. Indeed, it holds its own in the context of the show’s distinguished history, and each previous installment has proved a fair barometer of its times. Thirty years ago, the very first Sculpture Projects was dominated by big American sculpture in the tradition of Land art. Monoliths by Claes Oldenburg, Donald Judd, and Carl Andre still dot the city and are now much loved by this Catholic Westphalian town’s initially recalcitrant citizenry. Bruce Nauman’s impressive Square Depression, a sunken inverted pyramid unrealized in 1977 and finally constructed this year, hovers like a ghost from that period. The second installment, in 1987, the “year of the figurative,” was characterized by the furor surrounding Katharina Fritsch’s yellow Madonna and by the then-fashionable concept of site-specificity, which had grown out of Land art. By 1997, Sculpture Projects was even larger and more exuberant, with a roster of memorable sculptures by Jorge Pardo, Ilya Kabakov, Huang Yong Ping, Martin Kippenberger, Roman Signer, and some extraordinary unrealized works, like Gabriel Orozco’s half-submerged Ferris wheel and Charles Ray’s turning tree. These iconic sculptures complemented works (by the likes of Rirkrit Tiravanija, Jef Geys, and Tobias Rehberger) that reformulated “public art” in participatory terms—an approach typically in tune with the times.

Skulptur Projekte Münster provided an early blueprint for art programs set in urban spaces, and that blueprint has been adopted widely in the past decade, with small to midscale metropolises the world over grasping how useful visual art can be in forging a civic brand and, with it, a strong tourist economy. Münster helped give birth to the proliferating biennials, triennials, and quinquennials that define the contemporary global art world, and, like any parent, it faces the prospect of being exhausted by its clamorous brood. But what Münster lacks in youthful energy it makes up for in experience, and this year it was evident that, although on its own terms it is modest in scale, it has succeeded in preserving its difference from an increasingly homogenized biennial offer. Each Münster installment is like the latest volume in an expanding history of sculpture conceived for public space. Longevity, focus, and the ten-year cycle give it a unique value. The intervening decade is essential in order to clearly register the evolution of this history: If the event were any more frequent, the continuities would eclipse the changes.

A frighteningly clean, bourgeois town, one of the most prosperous in Germany, Münster has as its only distinguishing features its tastefully ersatz architecture (reconstructed after World War II following the almost total destruction of the city’s historical center) and the fact that here, in 1648, the Thirty Years’ War was brought to an end, as much of Europe sensibly decided to separate itself into self-determining Protestant and Catholic states rather than go on fighting. Apart from that, and the bleak chapter of the Second World War, not much has happened in Münster. Unlikely fodder, then, for artists seeking to catalyze new works from loaded sites or situations—certainly when compared with towns like Berlin, Istanbul, or Ljubljana, perched, as they are (or were), on historical fault lines between world orders and rife with cultural tension. The curators warn of the creeping privatization of the public sphere in Germany, but twenty years after Reagan and Thatcher’s radical free-marketeering and following some dramatic sell-offs of public assets, it is hard to see this as a stirring issue, even if it is relatively new to Germany’s civic experience. Münster’s canvas—as a ground for oppositional art—is pretty blank.

Whereas biennials tend to be defined curatorially a priori, and the artists who participate in them jet in to respond to the locale or to illustrate the concept, the whole feel of Sculpture Projects is less frantic, less predetermined, somehow more artistic. Münster—when viewed retrospectively—comes to reflect or define its art-historical moment precisely because it has never set out programmatically to do so. The curatorial approach is low-key and artist-centered. As with any program of totally new art—particularly when you mix, as Münster typically does, very young artists with the very experienced—there is a high percentage of slight or unresolved work. But Sculpture Projects has also been consistently blessed with a great deal of resolved work. And in Münster, on a sunny day and on a bike, the whole is always greater than the sum of its parts.

Skulptur Projekte 07, which was organized by Kasper König, Brigitte Franzen, and Carina Plath and includes contributions by thirty-six artists, certainly had no shortage of engaging parts. On the banks of Münster’s famous Lake Aa, I almost mistook Tue Greenfort’s Diffuse Einträge (Diffuse Entries) for a piece of abandoned agricultural machinery. A huge liquid-manure truck, it pumps a constant jet into the lake, as if it were a public fountain stolen from some horribly dystopian city. In fact, it is a sculpture that encapsulates complex layers of ecological investigation, as well as being, itself, an activist intervention. The truck spews iron chloride into the water in a symbolic attempt to neutralize the effects of quantities of phosphates washed into the lake from the surrounding area’s many meat farms. These phosphates generate algae that compromise the quality of the water in which Münster’s population comes to boat and swim. According to Greenfort’s research, the water, if ingested, could cause serious bodily damage. While it is hard, standing on Lake Aa’s elysian lawns, to register this as an ecological catastrophe of global proportions, it will nevertheless give immaculately green Münster something to ruminate on. At the farthest reaches of the lake, biennial darling Susan Philipsz contributed one of her signature self-sung sound pieces. The Lost Reflection made good use of the space underneath the long bridge that straddles the water. Philipsz doubles herself in singing both parts of a duet, the barcarole (a gondolier’s song) from The Tales of Hoffmann, Jacques Offenbach’s opera inspired by the classic gothic fiction of E. T. A. Hoffmann. She then splits the two parts, mezzo-soprano and soprano, into two recordings that call back and forth to each other across the water. This vocal mirroring in turn reflects the visual mirroring that is a feature of the site, as the bridge reflects in the water’s surface and vice versa. Doubling, splitting, mirroring: All are haunting qualities, but I’d have wanted to be here alone on a dark night to see whether the work has hidden gothic depths to balance its charm. Like Philipsz’s Lost Reflection, Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset’s Drama Queens was memorable but only mildly “situation-specific” (a term the curators have deployed, cognizant that the “site” of “site-specificity” is too narrowly identified with a sense of physical location to encompass the full complexity of art’s context, or at least to fully capture the way in which we understand that context today) in that it could easily, and deservedly, be shown elsewhere—in alternative situations, as it were. The live performance had a short-lived outing at Münster’s Municipal Theater; thereafter the work was put (and remains) on view on a plasma screen in the Landesmuseum’s foyer. If you had read a synopsis before experiencing the performance, you would have worried that you were in for half an hour of ponderous, art-theoretical dissertation. In fact, the piece is a hilarious dramatization of the history of modern sculpture, brilliantly written by Forced Entertainment’s Tim Etchells, in which iconic works—Barbara Hepworth’s Elegy III, 1966; Sol LeWitt’s Four Cubes, 1971; and Alberto Giacometti’s Walking Man, 1947, for example—are automated to move and scripted to talk to one another. Each personifies art-historical characteristics or qualities, and functions as a stereotype of the national identity of its creator. Thus, Giacometti’s Walking Man is a soft-spoken, melancholic Swiss, who can’t stop moving as he frets over every aspect of his existence, including his exile into museum storage. Jeff Koons’s Rabbit of 1986 is a hyperactive cynical wise guy, all parties and showtime, headed for “the great padded packing case in the sky.” Sol LeWitt’s Four Cubes is a down-to-earth, macho American who bores everyone with his endless recitals of banal, important-sounding axioms. Drama Queens was the most entertaining contribution to Münster in 2007, with the possible exception of Mike Kelley’s Petting Zoo, a menagerie of salt-loving, hoofed animals made available for stroking. But if one were to single out the most Münster-ish pieces, the most essential in terms of carrying forward Sculpture Projects’ ongoing inquiry into art and its potential in the public realm, then one would be forced to look elsewhere—to choose those works that challenge the viewer to think about art’s relationship to space, and place, in simultaneously formal and conceptual terms: artworks that understand “sculpture” both as volume (something that physically delineates or occupies a space) and as idea (something that interprets the space it defines or refers to, whether in philosophical, political, or poetic terms).

One of the more effective negotiations of situation-specificity is veteran radical Gustav Metzger’s Aequivalenz—Shattered Stones, a typically ephemeral—typical, that is, for an artist who has written five manifestos advocating autodestructive art—and human piece. Every day for 107 days (the duration of the exhibition) a man drives a forklift to the Westfälischer Kunstverein and goes inside, where a computer provides him with a set of randomly generated instructions. He is to go to a specified location in the city, where he will deposit from his forklift a certain number of stones, which he will then photograph. The stones will vanish at the end of the project. A similar exercise was to have unfolded simultaneously in the English Midlands town of Coventry, but mayoral approval is still pending. The Luftwaffe razed Coventry in 1940, and in retaliation the RAF intensified its bombing of German cities. One of those, Münster, was decimated by the end of the war. Metzger’s randomly dispersed stones echo the fall of bombs throughout both cities. But whereas bombs signal instantaneous violent destruction, Metzger’s stones accumulate slowly only to quietly disappear: a gentle monument to devastation and reconciliation.

Mark Wallinger’s Zone is similarly dematerial yet spatial, constructed from what seems a gossamer thread strung high in the air to demarcate a five-kilometer circle around the inner city. You know it is there, but you rarely see it. Zone follows the construction method of an eruv, a device that orthodox Jews use to cleverly bypass certain of their own Sabbath restrictions. An area of a given city is delineated with wire carried aloft on poles in order to claim it as private rather than public space, thus enabling the community to, for example, carry objects from house to house on the Sabbath. The eruv is, Wallinger says, the opposite of the ghetto, in terms of the spatialization of religious community: It stands for freedom, the ghetto for its absolute loss. Wallinger isn’t heavy-handed with the politics, although the ambiguous wartime history of Catholic Münster’s relations with its Jews is referenced in the catalogue. Zone simultaneously refers us to the fourteenth-century English concept of the pale, a defined physical area in which the controlling power permits itself to suspend or enforce law at whim, as most egregiously demonstrated at Guantánamo Bay. This relates Zone to State Britain, 2007, Wallinger’s recent installation at Tate Britain, which highlighted the one-kilometer exclusion zone that the British government has drawn around the Houses of Parliament, in abrogation of the fundamental democratic right to protest in public space.

Wallinger’s Zone shares with Metzger’s Aequivalenz a light-touched approach to weighty—both in physical and political terms—subjects, a quality that also inheres, albeit in very different ways, in two other works I particularly admired in Münster.

Projected in the Atrium of the Landeshaus, The Head is a well-judged piece by an important Baltic artist, the Lithuanian Deimantas Narkevicius. Ostensibly, it is a purloined documentary film about the socialist realist Lew Kerbel, sculptor of a ridiculously large, forty-ton head of Karl Marx, made in 1971, which graces the parade ground of Chemnitz (formerly known as Karl-Marx-Stadt), in eastern Germany. In fact, The Head is a multilayered conceptual piece that triggers myriad questions about how we should approach the past: Is socialist realism, as an art in the service of an ideology, to be obliterated, critiqued, or curated? What, ultimately, is the difference between a monument and a sculpture? Narkevicius, who himself trained initially as a socialist-realist sculptor, wanted to transport Kerbel’s Marx to Münster, on temporary loan, as his contribution to Skulptur Projekte 07: It would have looked extraordinary in the verdant lakeside glades. What would happen in dramatically deracinating this “monument,” freighted as it is with associations of a repressive, artistically stifled era? Would those associations be emptied out, Narkevicius wondered (whether hopefully or ironically), thereby transforming the work into a mere “modern sculpture,” an autonomous object divorced from aura or original ritualistic purpose? Presumably the plan was shelved on the grounds of its sheer absurdity. On April 24, 2007, Chemnitz’s Lord Mayor likewise rejected Narkevicius’s plan B—the making of an exact plastic replica of Marx—arguing that Kerbel’s work could be fully experienced only in its intended context. In other words, it is a site-specific piece, at least as site-specific as its contemporaneous Western counterparts set on the banks of Lake Aa. The Lord Mayor, mindful of her civic brand, nevertheless warmly invited all Sculpture Project visitors to experience the work firsthand in Chemnitz.

The young German artist Clemens von Wedemeyer, like Narkevicius, relates sculpture to the idea of civic space, through the medium of film. Von Gegenüber (From the Opposite Side) was conceived for the defunct Metropolis Cinema, which sits next to Münster’s train station. Cinemas generally take you elsewhere, into reverie inspired by other places and other people’s stories. The conceit of Von Gegenüber is that it takes you only as far as the cinema’s doorstep. Shot in the adjacent station, it is an accomplished, surprisingly gripping piece of filmmaking—an artful combination of vérité footage and acted scenarios seamlessly stitched together in what appears to be one breathless take. Stylistically, it is like a documentary film rendered cinematic, in an opposite thrust to the cinema-rendered-documentary mode that has been so prevalent since the advent of Dogme more than a decade ago. Wedemeyer’s film piece is also, arguably, a piece of sculpture, in that it delineates a spatial relationship between the viewer (sitting in the cinema) and the work’s subject (the station, a few feet away). The artist refers cinema back to its early spatial roots in evoking the model of the camera obscura, a darkened chamber in which the outside—a view of the city beyond the walls—is thrown back into the room as an image, projected through a small opening in the wall. Von Gegenüber connects interior space to public space, and the mind of the viewer to the messy life of the city, played out around the station.

In testing the limits of what constitutes sculpture and in closely rooting that inquiry to a local public site, Wedemeyer’s Von Gegenüber is related to existing Münster icons such as Jorge Pardo’s Pier, 1997, or Thomas Schütte’s Kirschensäule (Cherry Column), 1987. But in common with many of the contributions this year, and to the chagrin of the local people I spoke to, Von Gegenüber will have a short life, in a Sculpture Projects characterized by provisional interventions rather than visually decisive objects. From Pawel Althamer’s path-to-nowhere down by the water to Isa Genzken’s raggedy collection of dolls and strollers outside the Überwasserkirche, from Hans-Peter Feldmann’s refurbished public conveniences in the Domplatz to Jeremy Deller’s local gardeners’ diaries, I suspect we will look back at Skulptur Projekte 07 from the vantage point of 2017 as a homogeneous encapsulation of its art-historical moment. But we’ll have to wait till then to see what comes after the formally modest/conceptually rich paradigm of “situation-specificity.”

Kate Bush is director of the Barbican Centre, London.